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Prominent National Education Reformer Making a Home in Nashville

Former Washington, D.C. public schools chancellor Michelle Rhee — who is also ex-wife to Tennessee Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman — told lawmakers at the Southern Legislators Conference in Memphis she’s been paying close attention to education debates here.

One of Tennesssee’s newest residents, who happens to be a rock star of education reform, told an attentive group of southern legislators in Memphis Sunday it’s time to bring back a culture of competitiveness to the nation’s education system.

Michelle Rhee, former chancellor of Washington D.C. schools and founder of StudentsFirst, a reform-minded education organization, said it would be best to get away from the everybody-gets-a-trophy attitude with children nowadays and put some accountability into education, top to bottom.

Rhee, noted for her appearance in the documentary film “Waiting for ‘Superman’,” has moved to Nashville so her two daughters can be close to their father, Tennessee’s new education commissioner, Kevin Huffman.The girls will go to school in Nashville. But Rhee will spend only half of her time in Nashville, with plans to spend the other half in Sacramento, where her fiance lives.

Rhee is most noted for her time as head of the D.C. school system, although a published report early this year by USA Today raised questions about the authenticity of some academic gains on her watch. The lobbyist for the state’s largest teachers union, Jerry Winters of the Tennessee Education Association, was reported in the Nashville Scene to have called Rhee a “lightning rod on a lot of education issues, not a lot being positive.” Winters also said he was “disappointed” in Bill Frist for penning a Tennessean op-ed with Rhee this past spring.

The two daughters were with Rhee as she spoke to the Southern Legislators Conference, a meeting of legislators from several states, with an audience of about 150 people.

She even used the two girls to make her point about competitiveness. She said her girls have trophies and ribbons galore to show for their participation in soccer. But how do they actually perform on the field of competition?

“They suck,” Rhee said, getting no visible objection to that assessment from the girls, who sat halfway back in the room. She said kids have lost the spirit of competition and that the nation has to regain that in education.

Rhee used the example to get the point across that the idea that everyone performs well is not a healthy way to approach education. Rhee was highly complimentary of the education reforms the Tennessee General Assembly enacted this year, which included tenure reform, charter school expansion and a new way of negotiating with teachers that dramatically reduces the power of the big teachers union.

“I think they made tremendous progress this last year,” Rhee said of the Legislature after her speech. “We had very close partnerships.”

“We feel heartened by the progress that was made in the Legislature in this last session. We also know a lot of those legislators are really interested in continuing to push aggressive reforms next session, so we’re very much looking forward to continuing working with them.”

Rhee dived right into partisan politics and explained she was a Democrat and once held all views one might expect in order to fall into the party line, including opposition to school vouchers. She changed her mind on that.

“Because of partisan politics I really believed that vouchers were not a good thing and that we shouldn’t even ever discuss them,” she said. “That all changed when I became the chancellor of a school district in D.C. and we had a publicly funded voucher program in the city.”

After hearing family after family tell their stories, she had her change of heart.

Rhee said she began to assess issues, like whether to change teacher tenure law, with her two daughters in mind. She said public schools in theory are supposed to be “the great equalizer” but that that “is not the reality.”

“Give me the ZIP code and race of a particular child, and I can with very good accuracy already tell you what that child’s achievement levels are,” she said.

“It is the biggest social injustice imaginable, because it means we are still in this day and age allowing the color of a child’s skin and the ZIP code they live in to dictate their educational attainment levels.”

Several Tennessee lawmakers were in the audience for Rhee’s speech. Several asked questions, including Rep. Ryan Williams, R-Cookeville, who asked about merit pay. Rhee said the vast majority of teachers don’t have a problem with being held accountable, that teachers should be involved in the process and that they just want it to be fair.

Rep. Lois DeBerry, D-Memphis, called Rhee’s speech “interesting.”

“Sometimes you have to look at other choices. One size does not fit all. I agree with that,” DeBerry said. “I’m just not sure whether I agree with her on the whole issue of how you get to creating a fair system for merit pay. There are a lot of pieces.”

Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey said he thinks Tennessee legislators will be working more with Rhee.

“I look forward to working with her through this next session and advance even more reforms for education,” Ramsey said.

Ramsey pointed to a bill sponsored by Sen. Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown, that would allow parents to take state money and choose any school they want their child to attend.

“I think we will see that advance next year, because it is blatantly unfair just because a parent doesn’t have the means another parent might have, that they’re stuck in a failing school,” Ramsey said. “I adamantly believe in that. Hopefully we’ll be able to pass that next year.”

Ramsey said much of the work next year would be on implementing reforms put in place this year.

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